The reports out of Lahore this Easter were shocking.
At least 69 people killed and many more injured in an explosion at a public park with families celebrating Easter in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore.
A Pakistan Taliban faction said it carried out the attack. Police told the BBC it appeared to be a suicide bomb.
Unfortunately, this terrorist attack is not the first of it's kind.
Suicide bombers target Christians in Pakistan during Easter and Christmas, either in their place of worship or at their place of gathering. The church attacks in Lahore last year in which 14 people were killed was just one sad example reported by Al Jazeera.
Persecution of minorities in Pakistan is commonplace, but why is that?
Persecution in Pakistan:
Blasphemy laws in Pakistan strongly contribute to the persecution non-Muslims face on a daily basis in Pakistan.
The story of Asia Bibi as reported by CNN is a perfect example: Asia Bibi, a mother of five from the Punjab province, was accused of defiling the name of the Prophet Mohammed during a 2009 argument with Muslim fellow field workers. The workers had refused to drink from a bucket of water she had touched because she was not Muslim - an infedel.
Section 295C of the Penal Code in Pakistan ensures that those accused of blasphemy receive the death sentence - often without a fair trial, access to representation, and even without viable evidence.
Pakistan has over 8,000 prisoners on death row - one of the world’s largest numbers of prisoners facing execution. Pakistani law mandates capital punishment for 28 offenses, including murder, rape, treason, and blasphemy. Those on death row are often from the most marginalized sections of society.
So, where are these persecuted minorities fleeing to? One of the quickest and easiest destinations for persecuted Pakistani minorities to travel to legally is Thailand.
Pakistani Asylum Seekers in Thailand:
According to UNHCR Thailand's January 2015 statistical report, approximately 8,000 asylum seekers in Thailand are Pakistani Christians.
I had the privilege to meet families in Bangkok who fled persecution from their communities and as a result of the apostasy and blasphemy laws in Pakistan. I heard the story of one family, where their 15 year old son was targeted by extremist groups, beaten until he developed a brain injury and a resulting disability. For the safety of their daughter and son, they fled Pakistan. I met another family who told us that, due to persecution and violence, they had no choice but to flee.
Unfortunately, these families once again faced persecution in Thailand, due to the non-human right complaint conditions asylum seekers are subject to in Thailand.
Thailand is not a signatory to the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees, but I was still shocked at the level of injustice asylum seekers in Thailand faced.
Asylum seekers in Thailand are not able to place their children in school, able to work, they are neither provided with accommodation, food, water or anything on which to subsist. If an asylum seeker does not work illegally in Thailand, or does not have money, they are destitute.
Asylum seekers in Thailand are also subject to cruel and inhuman treatment and punishment - their crime - seeking asylum - which, of course, is not a crime, and allowable under international law. (Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
For example, I met with Christian Pakistani Asylum Seekers who described their experiences and current circumstances in being locked up in criminal prisons, their ankles placed in shackles, stripped and hair shaved, families separated, mothers from their babies - they were not provided with food, water, the right to legal representation, the right to due process, and were being further persecuted and beaten – including the sick, the elderly and the vulnerable.
They were also thrown in detention centres and criminal prisons without due process, legal representation, the provision of food, water or basic health care or welfare services.
These families have the option of bail for at least $1,000 per person – which is impossible for them to afford.
NGO’s in Thailand have been bailing out families – but this is unsustainable, as, due to constant police raids on places where asylum seekers live, the persecuted Pakistani asylum seeker families are placed back into criminal detention within a few months of receiving bail.
Due to a language barrier, mothers are unaware why their children are being taken away, and to where.
The Thai Government is not taking care of these children and their mothers – these vulnerable asylum seekers in detention are denied services such as health, education, welfare and medical – they do not have access to a social workers, teachers or access to legal representation.
Reports indicate that asylum seekers have been placed in criminal detention facilities.
One young man was arrested during a raid in March 2015.
He was initially detained at Samut Prakarn prison and made an appearance at the Samut Prakarn court. He and other asylum seekers were sentenced to 14 days in the Central Jail, where they suffered bullying, and beating. It was reported that the prison staff would beat the men with sticks, and physical scars have been left on their bodies.
In addition, the prisoners are required to wear large iron chains, weighing nearly 5 kilograms, that left their ankles swollen and in pain. They were also required to walk nearly 4 kilometers to court in these chains along hard terrain that has left them with severe back pain and discomfort.
I have received the news from credible NGOs working in Thailand directly with asylum seekers that 91 asylum seekers were arrested on 10 September 2015 in what appeared to be a police raid, while 53 were arrested on 6 October 2015. Furthermore, countless more raids were conducted throughout the month of December in 2015.
I have also received confirmation that 250 refugees remain in the Immigration Detention Center without the option to be released on bail.
During a trip recently to Bangkok, Lord David Alton of the British Parliament discovered an 18-foot by 36-foot cell in which over 90 detainees were kept. A detainee had stated that because of the over-crowdedness, half of the detainees sleep during the night while the other half sleeps during the day. He explained, “This leaves enough space to stretch out straight, but not turn over. We just lie side by side, including our children.”
Moreover, there have been two deaths of asylum seekers while in Thai custody due to neglect of their health needs.
These actions by the Thai Government goes against international human rights standards, and various principles of international law, such as the right for all persons to access health, education and other welfare services, the right of all persons to due process and legal representation, and the right of all persons to subsist.
Chris Rogers of the BBC went undercover in Thailand to expose how the country treats its asylum seekers. Pakistani Christians fleeing extremist violence are among the second largest group of asylum seekers in Thailand. Many are routinely rounded up and sent indefinitely to immigration detention centres or locked up in jails. Their crime: to be seeking asylum, in a country which does not recognise refugees.
This BBC Documentary will give you a good idea of how Thailand is treating asylum seekers, and some of the things I also witnessed during my time there.
The world is taking note:
These reports of the horrific conditions for asylum seekers in Thailand were confirmed by the recent BBC broadcast titled, The Christians Stranded in Thailand.
Another BBC Radio report titled: Entire families flee Pakistan and head to Thailand goes inside the Immigration Detention Centres in Thailand.
The UK Times also published an article titled: "The Persecuted Christians with nowhere to run" about the situation Pakistani asylum seekers face in Thailand.
The reporter Chris Rogers posing as a charity volunteer delivering much-needed food and water to asylum seekers who were detained in 'filthy, overcrowded cells'. The report goes on to say: Thailand is known for its hospitality, but the country criminalises asylum seekers, who risk arrest and detention for illegal immigration. Many of those rounded up are Christians, who have fled persecution in Pakistan.
An Advocacy Response:
While I was in Thailand last year, representatives from Germany, America, Australia and the Netherlands confronted UNHCR in a meeting at the Thailand office about the inhuman conditions asylum seekers face in Thailand.
Unfortunately, it appeared that UNHCR was part of the problem - or, at least exacerbated it.
UNHCR are of course part of the United Nations, therefore maintains independence from local governments, aside from the fact that it is signatory States that fund UN operations.
UNHCR in Thailand have given some Pakistani asylum seekers an initial refugee status determination assessment date in 2019. Until then, asylum seekers are just meant to somehow survive -without having access to legal work, or provided with any welfare by which to subsist.
Of course, it is understandable that, due to the Syrian crisis, UNHCR are beyond capacity. This leaves asylum seekers in Thailand with no UN assessment, or refugee status determination for a long time, during which time, children miss out on school, the elderly get older, and the sick get sicker, pregnant women are at risk, and there is an ongoing risk of further persecution and criminal imprisonment.
It has been reported that during police raids, the Thai policemen tear up their UNHCR certificate of recognition of asylum seeker status - which holds their UNHCR number, photo, family accompaniment and personal details. This can be detrimental to them.
UNHCR Thailand were not willing to hear of individual hard cases, and responded that they did not have the capacity or resources to assist.
We wrote a 30-page report of our findings, and sent it to UNHCR in Geneva, and also lobbied our own parliamentarians in our respective nations.
I met with the Immigration Minister last year to discuss this, and other matters.
I have also written an advocacy letter to the Thai Ambassador here in Australia.
First and foremost, the Thai government needs to stop arresting asylum seekers who have already endured enough persecution in the countries they fled.
The Thai Government should consider cooperating with, and working alongside UNHCR in Thailand through NGO's to assist asylum seekers – who have the legal right under international law to seek asylum. (Article 14 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights)
Furthermore, those currently detained who are elderly or have health issues need to be released into medical care immediately.
Australia has a long standing history with Thailand, and these impunities by the Thai Government may place a strain on international relations and Thailand’s reputation as a popular holiday spot.
Secondly, Thailand should become a signatory of the Convention relating to the Status of Refugees.
Thirdly, Australia, and other Signatory States should give more to UNHCR - so that they can provide adequate, timely and ample resources and assistance to vulnerable persons.
Fourthly, The Australian Government should consider accepting the persecuted minority Pakistani Asylum seekers who find themselves in situations such as the one in Thailand - after being properly scrutinised for security checks and given a legitimate refugee status, there is no reason why the Australian Government cannot accept these refugees as part of our increased humanitarian intake.
What can you do?
You can do your own research and be informed.
You can advocate - that means sharing this information with others.
You can write a letter of advocacy about your concerns regarding asylum seekers in Thailand based on the above information, addressing it to the Thai Embassy in Canberra as follows:
To: Thai Ambassador, Mr Chirachai Punkrasin and the Political Affairs Office,
Royal Thai Embassy, Canberra
111 Empire Circuit Yarralumla ACT 2600
You could also write to the Australian Immigration Minister the Hon Peter Dutton MP:
PO Box 6022
House of Representatives
Canberra ACT 2600
Your advocacy makes a difference - add your voice to the campaign.